February 22, 2015

Clark Terry, 1920-2015

Clark Terry and Monk Rowe, October 1996

Jazz trumpeter and educator Clark Terry passed away on Saturday February 21, at the age of 94. I had been prepared for this news knowing that this jazz legend had been in ill health for many years, and having just viewed the touching documentary Keep On Keepin’ On.
I think of Clark as a member of the second generation of jazz musicians. He was born in St. Louis in 1920, three years after the first jazz recording by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. His mentors and teachers were of the first generation, and the music of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke Ellington all played a formative role in Clark’s development. While his music education came predominantly from outside the classroom, one of Clark’s contributions was to help move that knowledge into an educational setting. But even in the codified world of academia, he was able to impart the importance of learning the music by ear, feel, and intuition. Clark would just as soon expound on the beauty of the three blue notes as he would on the whole step/half step scales that might be applied to a specific ii-V-I chord progression.
I am one of the fortunate ones who spent time with Clark through my position at Hamilton College. He received an honorary degree from Hamilton in 1995, and performed numerous times at our annual Fallcoming jazz event. One memory that will remain is an evening gig in our on-campus pub [pictured above]. I was joined by Bob Cesari, a fellow saxophonist, and we were consistently amazed and amused by Clark’s ability to conjure up the absolutely perfect background riff to insert behind soloists. This may seem like an expected ancillary skill for a jazz musician, but I assure you it is not. You won’t find it in textbooks, and most academically-trained jazz musicians do not learn the technique. It comes from learning on the job, balancing theory with spontaneity, and, in Clark’s case, a wry sense of humor.
In 1999 I released a CD of compositions dedicated to artists that I had met through the jazz archive oral history project. The tune I wrote for Clark Terry was named “Beyond Category,” a phrase I borrowed from the Duke Ellington legacy. Duke used the term to describe Clark, a musician who could rise above definitions and provide exactly what was needed at any time. The flugelhorn of Wendell Brunious came about as close as you can get to capturing Clark’s unique sound.

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